BY MARK PHELAN • FREE PRESS AUTO CRITIC • July 22, 2008

The U.S. car market may be moving toward Mini’s kind of small, fashionable and fuel-efficient vehicles, and the British brand will be ready as it prepares to launch its first electric vehicles here in 2009 and a small crossover utility vehicle not long after.

 

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Mini also would like to offer a diesel engine if it can develop one that gets at least 50 m.p.g. on the highway in EPA tests and meets strict emissions standards in California and northeast states, Jim McDowell, vice president of Mini USA, said.

“The world is moving in our direction,” McDowell said today in Birmingham. “The overall market is down 10% but small car sales are up 11%. People are trading in Ford F-150s and Hummers for Minis.”

Mini will add 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles to the allotment its U.S. dealers get this year, he said. Sales for the brand, which BMW owns, soared 33.9% to 26,400 cars for the first half of 2008. Minis have been selling in a mere four days on the lot, and the company is out of inventory in the United States, McDowell said.

Mini will have electrically powered versions of its subcompact on the road in the hands of “real customers” in the United States by this time next year, he said.

BMW announced last week it would ship 500 electric Minis to the United States. The company is still evaluating where to offer the cars and whether to lease or sell them, McDowell said. The company has not revealed any details about the EV’s range, power, charging time, price or other key factors.

The crossover is expected to debut at the Paris auto show in October. It will be small and low and keep the visual cues that are hallmarks of Mini’s design, McDowell said.

The current model line of the Mini Cooper coupe and convertible and Clubman wagon ranges from about 12 to nearly 13 feet long – tiny by American standards.

“I can imagine a Mini that’s 13 ½ feet long,” McDowell said of the crossover. He added that the crossover will be low slung to promote the sharp handling that distinguishes Mini.

“The way a Mini drives is very important to us,” he said. “We wouldn’t sacrifice that for an additional model.”

The model line may grow beyond the crossover, which will be built in Austria.

“I could imagine a scenario where we have six different models as long as each does something different,” he said. “Our design studio has some amazing ideas.”

Any new models must have styling elements that identify them as Minis, he said. Those elements include an extremely upright windshield, wheels placed at the very corners of the body, big headlights that resemble eyes and very small taillights.

Contact MARK PHELAN at phelan@freepress.com or 313-222-6731.

Source:  FreePress